|St Leonard's Church. Thrybergh|
Before satnav, before road atlases, before tarmac and before signposts - travel around England must have been very difficult. To alleviate some of this navigational difficulty, our forebears were in the habit of erecting stone columns at key points - at crossroads or on hills where they could be spotted by travellers. Some of these stone columns served other purposes too. They defined parishes or the ownership of land. They warded off evil spirits.
When Christianity arrived in England, our existing ancient stone edifices or guide stoops were cunningly re-christened as "crosses" but mostly they had nothing to do with Christianity. More "crosses" were erected through Saxon times and the middle ages - right through to the nineteenth century for as the years passed there was increasing trade between communities, more private land possession and more movement across the landscape.
On my countryside rambles, I have photographed many of these ancient stones. I know that lots of them have been destroyed or removed by thoughtless men or new road developers - insensitive to the breath of history. Thankfully, others endure giving a tantalizing glimpse of the way things were, arousing imagination.
Yesterday, I wandered into the churchyard of St Leonard's in Thrybergh near Rotherham. The church - currently enjoying some much needed restoration - can trace its origins back to 900AD and possibly earlier than that - long, long before Thrybergh was turned into a godforsaken pit village with cheap rows of cottages and coaldust everywhere.
As I left the churchyard, I noticed a very old cross in the lee of the boundary wall. It was "fenced off" with some red and white tape - presumably indicating restorative work in progress. There were various carvings on it - including Celtic or Saxon patterning on the edges and what seemed to be a man holding a book on the front. I knew it wasn't a gravestone.
Back home, research revealed that that cross used to stand on East Hill, Thrybergh and was removed to the graveyard in 1947. Indeed, there seem to be two phases of carving upon it - the edges probably carved in Saxon times and the front section - including the man with the book - carved in the twelfth century. Furthermore, there were once local legends about this stone - surrounding an early crusader and nobleman from the district - called Leonard. That story was captured in a narrative poem in 1817, published in an early Victorian anthology called "Wild Warblings":-
Where dawn first harbinger of day,
Sheds her pale light of sober gray,
And sol's resplendent majesty,
Shines forth o'er mountain tow'r, and tree;
Then up the lark with ardour springs,
And shakes the dewdrop from his wings,
And all the woodland choirs unite,
In grateful songs to hail the light,
Till rocks, and woods, and hills around,
Re-echo with the rural sound,
But stop my music to whither run?
Tis time the story was begun.
This admonitation did prevail,
So what next follows is the tale.
On rising eminence there stands,
A stone long plae'd by unknown hands,
Of rude design and form antique,
Sculptured o'er with hieroglyphie,
Which cannot now with ease be traced,
Being by some rude Goths defaced.
Tradition says there was a knight,
Sir Leonard call'd of valorous might,
That would in foreign climes go roam,
And leave his rib to sigh at home,
Full many a weary step had he,
Full many a sleepless night had she,
He many a cross adventure met,
She nothing did but sob and fret,
This irksome life for years she led,
Til she believed her lord was dead,
But he was groaning all the while,
[ Poor hapless wretch] in durance vile.
The sorrowing Dame now dries her tears,
For lo! a suitor gay appears,
With winning aspect graceful air,
Quite degagee, and debonair,
Who laid close siege to her in form,
To win her heart though not by storm,
But sap'd the mine by craving pity,
And sighing forth his love-lorn ditty,
Which soon the fortress strong subdued,
And full surrender quick ensued.
The ring was bought, the day was set,
And friends and priest at alter met,
To solomnize the nuptial rite,
And tie this loving couple tight.
When Priest was joining both their hands,
In hymens soft and silky bands,
Sir Leonards voice smote every ear,
With thund'ring sound:" Oh priest forbear,
"The sacred rite!- to end all strife,
"The lady is MY LAWFUL WIFE.
Aghast all stood, and sore amazed,
And on each other gaped and gazed,
In wild dismay, until the knight,
March'd off with madam from their sight.
The wondering party were perplexed,
And greatly puzzled and much vexed,
At being dup'd, as none could tell,
Whether from Heaven or dreadful hell,
He sprang to light;-to them he seemed,
Not mortal, being dead long deemed.
To end the story now in hand,
He came into his native land,
By fairy's spell or wizard's wand,
Tradition says; and does declare,
Like witch on broomstick through the air,
And safe upon the spot he alighted,
Where stands the stone before recited.
James Ross 1817
How magnificent that this old cross has survived the centuries but how frustrating that it cannot speak nor reveal memories of all that it witnessed as years melted into years and far more than a thousand summers passed by. Empires rose and fell, wars were lost or won, kings and queens succeeded each other, the corners of the world were explored...and still the stone endures.